The Bay Bridge, delicious wine, diverse culinary and culture is what comes to mind when you think of visiting America’s top city in Northern California. But what comes to mind when you think of San Francisco during the holidays? Sure, there may not be snow, but you’ll find just about every other holiday staple in San Francisco. The City by the Bay offers all the familiar holiday fare, as well as some performances, events and activities that are unique to San Francisco. Like what you ask? Well, pack your bags and get ready to plan a holiday adventure at one of my favorite domestic destinations.
1. Conservatory of Flowers New Garden Railway
Take a trip back in time Nov. 12-April 10 at the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park. The all-new garden railway display celebrates the centennial of the PPIE. Model trains wend their way through the festive fairgrounds, zipping along tracks past hundreds of dwarf plants, water features and reproductions of the Tower of Jewels, Palace of Fine Arts and more.
2. The Forty Part Motet
A masterwork by acclaimed media artist Janet Cardiff, “The Forty Part Motet” is an immersive and moving sound installation making its California debut at the Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture’s newest space, Gallery 308. The exhibition, co-sponsored by the Fort Mason Center and SFMOMA, will be on display from Nov. 14 to Jan. 18.
3. Macy’s Holiday Windows and Union Square Tree Lighting
One of Union Square’s flagship retailers gets into the holiday spirit early with its holiday window unveiling at 5 p.m. on Nov. 20. Press your nose to the glass to admire the creative decorations as well as the adorable (and adoptable!) puppies and kittens from the San Francisco SPCA. Come back the following week for the Union Square tree lighting. Featuring recording artist Jordin Sparks, this year’s 26th annual event starts at 6 p.m. on Nov. 27.
4. Beach Blanket Babylon
Undoubtedly, the world’s largest Christmas hat is found at “Beach Blanket Babylon’s” seasonal extravaganza. The long-running North Beach revue that combines topical humor, madcap sketches and enormous headpieces plays up commercial excesses with a wink and a nod (as well as some tap-dancing Douglas firs). Performances start Nov. 18 and run through the end of December, with special performances on New Year’s Eve that are legendarily outlandish.
5. PIER 39
One of the most popular spots in the city will host two tree lighting events on Nov. 21 and 22, both at 6 p.m. Welcome the holiday season with magic, merriment and a special visit from some Disneyland celebrities. Enjoy the shops and attractions of PIER 39 with the gorgeously decorated 60-foot tree adding some additional sparkle to the San Francisco skyline.
6. The Great Dickens Christmas Fair & Victorian Holiday Party
Take a trip back in time to gaslit, 19th-century London for The Great Dickens Christmas Fair & Victorian Holiday Party at the Cow Palace (weekends, Nov. 21–Dec. 20). Roasted chestnuts, carolers and Father Christmas himself harken back to the era’s bygone innocence (although the Victorian component can get a little saucy). In a venue stuffed full of gifts and seven stages’ worth of live entertainment, this is no abridged version of a Dickens classic. www.dickensfair.com
7. California Academy of Sciences
Starting Nov. 25, visitors to the California Academy of Sciences can experience“ ‘Tis the Season for Science,” the museum’s annual holiday exhibit that explores the science behind winter’s most famous phenomena. Meet a pair of live reindeer, brave an indoor snowstorm, compete in quiz shows and enjoy live performances—all under one roof in Golden Gate Park.
8. The Golden Girls: The Christmas Episodes
What better way to say “Thank you for being a friend” this holiday season than “The Golden Girls: The Christmas Episodes,” an annual pageant in which four of San Francisco’s biggest drag queens play Dorothy, Blanche, Rose and Sophia for 12 performances (Dec. 3-20). They take a few liberties with the scripts, but it all serves to make Christmas in Miami even merrier. Best of all, you can line up to have your picture taken with them after the show — a great head start on your Christmas card for next year.
9. Dance-Along Nutcracker
One of San Francisco’s most endearing holiday events, the Dance-Along Nutcracker at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Dec. 12-13, invites everyone to join in a fun-filled, zany dance-along concert. The theme this year is a blending of Tchaikovsky’s classic fairytale with an adaptation of the story of Oz — “The Nutcracker of Oz,” of course!
10. Avenue Q
In what has become a local tradition, New Conservatory Theater Center will present the Tony-winning Best Musical “Avenue Q,” Dec. 4-Jan. 17. Don’t let the puppeteers and fuzzy characters fool you; this is not a trip to “Sesame Street.” Leaving no topic untouched, the characters in this bawdy, brilliant show learn to navigate young adulthood in New York City with song, dance, laughs and heart. While you’re in the neighborhood, take a stroll through nearby Hayes Valley.
11. A Christmas Story, The Musical
Visit the SHN Orpheum Theatre for the rollicking stage adaptation of a latter-day holiday classic, “A Christmas Story, The Musical.” Your favorite movie moments—even the frozen flagpole—come alive in this witty and festive musical that will delight both children and grown-ups. This is a strictly limited run, Dec. 9-13, so buy your tickets soon.
12. Chanticleer Christmas
If you can’t see the Mormon Tabernacle Choir or get to Carnegie Hall, let Chanticleer come to you. The famed all-male vocal ensemble is bringing “A Chanticleer Christmas,” its take on Renaissance music studded with traditional carols and Gregorian chants, to seven major churches across the Bay Area, Dec. 10-23. The acoustics alone are warm enough to chase away any winter chill.
14. The Velveteen Rabbit
The Yerba Buena Center for the Arts presents ODC/Dance’s production of “The Velveteen Rabbit” from Nov. 27 to Dec. 13. This Bay Area tradition is a story of friendship and love told through music and dance, with festive costumes, madcap characters and plenty of holiday cheer.
15. The Nutcracker
Fun fact: Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” made its American premiere at the San Francisco Ballet on Christmas Eve, 1944, and it’s been an annual hit ever since. Packing 29 performances into 15 days, Dec. 16-31, the dancers introduce thousands of young minds to the athleticism and grace of ballet. Just don’t let the Mouse King’s army follow you to the Land of Sweets.
And while you’re in the city, don’t forget to stop by my favorite place, Hog Island Oyster Co., for a bowl of my favorite Clam Chowder. You’re welcome.
Have you traveled to San Francisco during the holidays? Comment below and share your adventures. I may want to try your recommendations next!
For more information about holiday events, activities and festivities in San Francisco, visit www.sanfrancisco.travel/holidays.